A Quick Thought About Professional Athletes, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, and Dangerous Painkillers

While in his car running errands last Saturday The Curmudgeon made the mistake of tuning into a sports talk radio program. Generally he limits his sports talk listening to one particular show that airs only on Saturday because the hosts, who are very good, are much too serious for the station’s idiotic listeners so they’re relegated to the weekend, when there are fewer listeners and they can actually talk about sports in a rational and intelligent way. What The Curmudgeon failed to realize was that even though it was still a few hours before the Philadelphia Eagles football team was to play a very important game, the station was already in the midst of a multi-hour pre-game broadcast.

And what The Curmudgeon heard was pretty appalling.

Four – four! – broadcasters were discussing a player with a shoulder injury that, according to one of the broadcasters, left him unable to raise that arm and therefore unable to play in that night’s game.

The broadcasters then proceeded, one by one, to criticize the player for not playing. They questioned his intentions – they said he didn’t care whether he played because he knew he would be paid regardless of whether he played; they questioned his desire – they said that every player is hurt by this point in the season and that those who want to win play regardless of pain because they want to win and that this player, because he has already been on a Super Bowl champion, didn’t care as much as his less-accomplished teammates; and they questioned his manhood – they suggested that if he was a real man – whatever that means – he would find a way to play no matter how great the pain and that his apparent refusal to do so made him less of a man.

It was pretty despicable.

When you think about it, though, it puts professional athletes’ willingness to use performance-enhancing drugs and serious painkillers, whether obtained legally or illegally, into a different perspective. No one wants to be accused of the personal shortcomings listed above, and particularly not football players because they play a game that seems to be driven as much by emotion as by ability, making them especially vulnerable to the kind of repugnant group mindset that these broadcasters were expressing. Leading the way in that discussion, by the way, were two former players – one of whom was the one who revealed that the player was unable to raise his arm and the other a former Eagle well known for his willingness to play no matter how seriously he was injured (yet who, upon retirement, was elected to Congress and lasted only two terms because he discovered that his six feet seven inches and 330 pounds didn’t enable him to accomplish anything that didn’t involve pounding someone into submission).

You can be sure, sadly, that a lot of the fans listening to the broadcast were shaking their heads in agreement, especially about the manhood part. These are the same fans who express dismay when professional sports change their rules to make their games safer for the players, the same fans who are unhappy that the sports they love have become “sissified” and insist that players in the past were rougher and tougher and real men and today’s players are coddled. These are the same fans who are going to stay away from the new movie Concussion because they don’t want to hear about the damage their heroes are doing to themselves, their brains, and their families by playing the way they play, the same fans who want to deny the science underlying the movie and that the organizations that run the sports have any responsibility to do anything about it, the same fans who gladly turn their backs to the kind of suffering a movie like that portrays because they believe the players have all gladly chosen to do what they do even though they know the damage it can cause.

thumbsThese are fans who would be at home in the old Roman Colosseum and who wouldn’t object to a new sport in which the losers suffer the ultimate loss: the loss of their lives. They want…Rollerball, if you recall the 1975 movie.

But it gave The Curmudgeon a little sympathy for the dilemma modern athletes face. They have to make tough choices, to be sure. Also, to be sure, many are still making the wrong choices for the wrong reasons. But when you read about an athlete who used performance-enhancing drugs or became addicted to painkillers, it gives you a slightly different perspective on why they do what they do. It’s the whole culture, it’s disgusting, and while the people in charge of the games are tinkering around the edges in an effort to try and change them, their tinkering is only half-hearted because they are too invested, both emotionally and financially, in the status quo, and the conversation among the four broadcasters before the Eagles game was proof that despite all of the evidence that the abuses athletes heap upon their bodies are long-lasting and serious and potentially fatal, the culture asks – no, it demands – that this abuse continue and is prepared to apply all sorts of derogatory and demeaning labels to those who fail to live up to this unreasonable, macho, foolish standard. (If you’d like to see a great depiction of this sentiment, skip Concussion and rent North Dallas Forty, perhaps the best sports movie ever made.)

Okay, so it wasn’t such a “quick thought” after all.

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